The Way Home (Chapter 8)

JTort Morgan was a small town of about ten thousand people. Anna drove around for a little while to get her bearings, then stopped at a phone booth to look up the Bradleys' address. What she would do if they weren't in the book, she didn't know. It could mean they had moved or died, or it might just mean that their number wasn't listed.

She could have asked Saxon, but she hadn't wanted to ask him for information to help her to do something of which he didn't approve. Besides, it had been nineteen years, and there was no guarantee the Bradleys would still live in the same house, even if they had remained in Fort Morgan.

The phone book wasn't very big. She flipped through it to the Bs, then ran her finger down the column. "Bailey.. .Banks.. .Black.. .Boatwright… Bradley. Harold Bradley." She wrote down the address and phone number, then debated whether she should call them to get directions. She decided not to, because she wanted to catch them unawares, as it were. People could mask their true reactions if they were given warning.

So she drove to a gas station, filled up and asked directions of the attendant. Ten minutes later she drove slowly down a residential street, checking house numbers, and finally stopped at the curb in front of a neat but unpretentious house. It looked as if it had been built a good forty or fifty years before, with an old-fashioned roofed porch across the front. The white paint showed signs of wear but wasn't at the point where one could definitely say the house was in need of repainting. An assortment of potted plants was sunning on the porch, but there weren't any ornamentals in the small yard, which gave it a bare look. A one-car, unconnected garage sat back and to the side of the house.

She got out of the car, oddly reluctant now that she was here, but she walked up the cracked sidewalk and climbed the three steps to the porch. A porch glider, with rust spots showing where the thick white paint had chipped, was placed in front of the windows. Anna wondered if the Bradleys sat out there during the summer and watched the neighbors go about their business.

There wasn't a doorbell. She knocked on the frame of the screen door and waited. A gray-and-white cat leaped up onto the porch and meowed curiously at her.

After a minute, she knocked again. This time she heard hurried footsteps, and her pulse speeded up in anticipation. With it came a wave of nausea that had her swallowing in desperation. Of all the times to have one of her rare bouts of morning sickness! She only hoped she wouldn't disgrace herself.

The door opened, and she found herself face-to-face with a tall, thin, stern-faced woman, only the thin screen separating them. The woman didn't open the screen door. Instead she said, "Yes?" in a deep, rusty-sounding voice.

Anna was dismayed by the lack of friendliness and started to ask for directions as an excuse for being there, planning to leave without ever mentioning Saxon. But the tall woman just stood there with her hand on the latch, patiently waiting for Anna to state her business before she opened the door, and something about that strength of will struck a cord.

"Mrs. Bradley?"

"Yes, I'm Mrs. Bradley."

"My name is Anna Sharp. I'm looking for the Bradleys who used to be foster parents to Saxon Ma-lone. Is this the right family?"

The woman's regard sharpened. "It is." She still didn't unlatch the door.

Anna's hopes sank. If Saxon hadn't been exposed to any sort of love even here, where he had grown up, he might never be able to give or accept it. What sort of marriage could she have under those conditions? What would it do to her own child to have a father who always kept at a distance?

But she had come this far, so she might as well carry on. She was aware, too, of the compelling quality of the woman's steely gaze. "I know Saxon," she began, and with an abrupt movement the woman flipped the latch up and swung the screen door outward.

"You know him?" she demanded fiercely. "You know where he is?"

Anna moved back a step. "Yes, I do."

Mrs. Bradley indicated the interior of the house with a jerk of her head. "Come inside."

Anna did, cautiously, obeying an invitation that had sounded more like a command. The door opened directly into the living room; a quick look around told her that the furniture was old and threadbare in spots, but the small room was spotless.

"Sit," said Mrs. Bradley.

She sat. Mrs. Bradley carefully relatched the screen door, then wiped her hands on the apron she wore. Anna watched the motion of those strong, work-worn hands, then realized that it was more of a nervous wringing than it was a deliberate movement.

She looked up at her reluctant hostess's face and was startled to see the strong, spare features twisted in a spasm of emotion. Mrs. Bradley tried to school herself, but abruptly a lone tear rolled down her gaunt cheek. She sat down heavily in a rocker and bunched the apron in her hands. "How is my boy?" she asked in a broken voice. "Is he all right?"

They sat at the kitchen table, with Mrs. Bradley drinking coffee while Anna contented herself with a glass of water. Mrs. Bradley was composed now, though she occasionally dabbed at her eyes with the edge of the apron.

"Tell me about him," Emmeline Bradley said. Her faded blue eyes were alight with a mixture of joy and eagerness, and also a hint of pain.

"He's an engineer," Anna said, and saw pride join the other emotions. "He owns his own company, and he's very successful."

"I always knew he would be. Smart! Lordy, that boy was smart. Me and Harold, we always told each other, he's got a good head on his shoulders. He always got A's in school. He was dead serious about his schooling."

"He put himself through college and graduated near the top of his class. He could have gone to work with any of the big engineering firms, but he wanted to have his own business. I was his secretary for a while."

"Fancy that, his own secretary. But when he made up his mind to do something, he done it, even when he was just a boy."

"He's still like that," Anna said, and laughed. "He says exactly what he means and means exactly what he says. You always know where you stand with Saxon."

"He didn't talk much when he was here, but we understood. The child had been through so much, it was a wonder he'd talk at all. We tried not to crowd him, or force ourselves on him. It about broke our hearts sometimes, the way he would jump to do every little thing we mentioned, then kinda hold himself off and watch to see if we thought he'd done it right. I guess he thought we were going to throw him out if he didn't do everything perfect, or maybe even kick him around the way they'd done in some of those other homes."

Tears welled in Anna's eyes, because she could see him all too plainly, young and thin and still helpless, his green eyes watchful, empty of hope.

"Don't cry," Emmeline said briskly, then had to dab at her own eyes. "He was twelve when we got him, bone-thin and gangly. He hadn't started getting his height yet, and he was still limping where the woman who had him before us knocked him off the porch with a broom handle. He twisted his ankle pretty bad. He had some long, thin bruises across his back, like the broom handle had caught him there, too. I guess it was a regular thing. And there was a burn mark on his arm. Mind you, he never said anything about it, but the caseworker told us a man ground out his cigarette on him.

"He never acted scared of us, but for a long time he'd get real stiff if we got too close to him, like he was getting ready to either fight or ran. He seemed more comfortable if we stayed at a distance, so we did, even though I wanted to hug him close and tell him no one was ever going to hurt him again. But he was kinda like a dog that's been beat. He'd lost his trust of people."

Anna's throat was tight when she spoke. "He's still distant, to some extent. He isn't comfortable with emotion, though he's getting better."

"You know him real well? You said you used to be his secretary. Don't you still work for him?"

"No, I haven't worked for him for two years." A faint blush stained her cheeks. "We're having a baby, and he's asked me to marry him."

The color of Emmeline's eyes was faded, but her vision was still sharp. She gave Anna a piercing once-over. "In my day we did things in reverse order, but times change. There's no shame in loving someone. A baby, huh? When's it due? I reckon this is as close to a grandchild as I'll get."

"September. We live in Denver, so we aren't that far away. It'll be easy to visit."

A sad look crept over Emmeline's lined face. "We always figured Saxon didn't want to have nothing to do with us again. He said goodbye when he graduated from high school, and we could tell he meant it. Can't blame him, really. By the time we got him, his growing-up years had marked him so deep we knew he wouldn't want to think about any foster home. The caseworker told us all about him. The woman who gave birth to that boy has a lot to answer for, what she did to him and the living hell she caused his life to be. I swear, if anyone had ever found out who she was, I'd have hunted her down and done violence to her."

"I've had the same thought myself," Anna said grimly, and for a moment her velvet brown eyes didn't look so soft.

"My Harold died several years back," Emmeline said, and nodded in acknowledgment of Anna's murmur of sympathy. "I wish he could be here now, to hear how well Saxon's turned out, but I guess he knows anyway."

Her rough, simple faith was more touching than any elaborate protestation could have been. Anna found herself smiling, because there was something joyous in Emmeline's surety.

"Saxon said you lost your own son," she said, hoping she wasn't bringing up a source of grief that was still fresh. Losing a child was something a parent should never have to experience.

Emmeline nodded, a faraway expression coming over her face. "Kenny," she said. "Lordy, it's been thirty years now since he took sick that last time. He was sickly from birth. It was his heart, and back then they couldn't do the things they can now. The doctors told us from the time he was a baby that we wouldn't get to keep him all that long, but somehow knowing don't always help you prepare for it. He died when he was ten, poor little mite, and he looked about the size of a six-year-old."

After a minute the dreamy expression left her face, and she smiled. "Saxon, now, you could tell right off, even as thin and bruised up as he was, he was a strong one. He started growing the next year after we got him. Maybe it was having regular meals that did it. Lord knows I poked all the food down him I could. But he shot up like a bean pole, growing a foot in about six months. Seemed like every time we got him some jeans, he outgrew them the next week. He was taller than Harold in no time, all legs and arms. Then he started to fill out, and that was a sight to behold. All of a sudden we had more young gals walking up and down the street than I'd ever imagined lived within a square mile of this house, giggling to each other and watching the door and windows, trying to get a glimpse of him."

Anna laughed out loud. "How did he take being the center of attention like that?"

"He never let on like he noticed. Like I said, he was real serious about his schooling. And he was still leery about letting folks get close to him, so I guess dating would have been uncomfortable for him. But those girls just kept walking past, and can't say as I blame them. He made most boys his age look like pipsqueaks. He was shaving by the time he was fifteen, and he had a real beard, not a few scrag-gly hairs like most boys. His chest and shoulders had gotten broad, and he was muscled up real nice. Fine figure of a boy."

Anna hesitated, then decided to touch on the subject of Kenny again. Emmeline tended to get carried away talking about Saxon, perhaps because she had been denied the privilege for so many years. Now that she had finally met somebody who knew him, all the memories were bubbling out.

"Saxon told me that he always felt you resented him because he wasn't Kenny."

Emmeline gave her a surprised look. "Resented him? It wasn't his fault Kenny died. Let me tell you, you don't ever get over it when your child dies, but Kenny had been dead for several years before we got Saxon. We'd always planned to either adopt or take in foster kids, anyway, after Kenny left us. Kenny's memory laid a little easier after Saxon came to live with us. It was like he was happy we had someone else to care about, and having Saxon kept us from brooding. How could we resent him, when he'd been through such hell? Kenny didn't have good health, but he always knew we loved him, and even though he died so young, in some ways he was luckier than Saxon."

"He needs to be loved so much," Anna said, her throat tightening again. "But it's so hard for him to reach out to anyone, or let anyone reach out to him."

Emmeline nodded. "I guess we should have tried harder, after he'd had time to realize we weren't going to hurt him, but by then we were kinda used to keeping our distance from him. He seemed more comfortable that way, and we didn't push him. Looking back, I can see what we should've done, but at the time we did what it seemed like he wanted." She sat for a minute in silence, rocking back and forth a little in the wooden kitchen chair. Then she said, "Resent him? Never for a minute. Land sakes, we loved him from the beginning."